Senators seek raises for troopers, more public health money

Georgia’s state senators want to give raises to some state troopers and add more money to public health spending on top of what House members already added.

They also want to spend more money to subsidize Atlanta’s state-owned convention center and add more money to buy school buses.

Those are among a relatively modest set of changes that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved Thursday in House Bill 80, which would amend the state’s budget for the remaining months of the budget year ending June 30. The bill moves to the full Senate for more debate.

Like the version the House passed on Jan. 28, it spends $26.6 billion in state funds, with $15.6 billion more in federal money. It keeps Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to add back $567 million to the state’s K-12 school funding formula, which was cut by $950 million in June when lawmakers were anticipating a steep drop in revenue. Lawmakers cut nearly $2.2 billion then, and while tax collections have come in higher than anticipated, most agencies besides K-12 schools, universities, and technical colleges aren’t getting back any of the roughly 10% that was cut.

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the Department of Public Health has emerged as a priority for more state funding, even though the Kemp administration has said it wants to rely mostly on increased federal money for now. The Senate would shift $11 million in bond money to help pay for further computer improvements to track vaccinations and create an electronic appointment system for vaccination appointments. With the money the House already added, lawmakers propose adding $27 million to these functions.

Senators also propose more high-level administrative help at the department. Adding to money the House already proposed, lawmakers would add $486,000 to pay for a chief medical officer, deputy commissioner, chief data officer, senior programmer and financial manager.

In addition to Kemp’s proposal to use existing funds to pay for 10% raises for correctional and juvenile detention officers, the Senate proposes shifting around about $6 million to increase pay for some state troopers and other Department of Public Safety employees. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Blake Tillery said the money would let Public Safety Commissioner Chris Wright pay incentives for educational achievements and create new ranks, like master trooper, to alleviate the current situation where some troopers top out in pay.

"It would create a ladder, not a cliff," said Tillery, a Vidalia Republican.

Senators would add $3 million to subsidize the Georgia World Congress Center in downtown Atlanta, covering some of the convention center’s losses in the last year. Senators would also add another $1.25 million to subsidize the Georgia National Fairgrounds and Agricenter in Perry, bringing the increased subsidy proposed by lawmakers to $3 million.

Senators would add another $1 million to the amount proposed by the House to buy school buses, bringing the total to $39.6 million, enough for a projected 513 buses.

Thursday’s spending plan would also appropriate another $7.5 million to the emergency fund that Kemp controls.

To finance the increases, senators would shift $7 million from state standardized testing and $8 million from the program that pays for high school students to take college dual enrollment courses. Tillery said that money isn’t needed, with demand for dual enrollment courses down.

Senators would spend about $675,000 more on legislative operations and Lt. Gov Geoff Duncan’s office, and an additional $539,000 for public libraries to buy books and other materials.

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